The gaze of the Marine platoon leader is calm and direct. It’s 1953, and the Korean War is raging halfway around the world. The 19-year-old Marine and his buddies at Parris Island, South Carolina, face an uncertain future.
That young man was Bob Kerr, a founding director of the South Fork
Conservancy. Although he celebrated his 90th birthday earlier this month, Bob still projects that same resolve. His steadiness has proved an asset in his long life of public service as a negotiator, coalition builder, and conservation advocate. His leadership spans a lifetime of work with state and federal agencies and several non-profit organizations, including the South Fork Conservancy.
Born in 1933, Kerr grew up in Cabbagetown, east of downtown Atlanta, where his parents worked in the Fulton Cotton Mills. Later, he and his dad sold vegetables door-to-door and Christmas trees at the state farmer’s market and local churches. Although his father had little formal education, Bob said, “he knew animals, plants, fish. He just knew. He could smell a bream bed across a lake.” The two trekked across Georgia, fishing “every mud hole in the state.” Bob never thought about those trips as being “in nature.”
“I just liked being outdoors,” he said.
Yet, he acknowledges, his love for the natural world likely had its origins in those early days.
Before military service, Bob worked at Southern Bell Telephone, first as a mail clerk and later, thanks to a lunchtime friendship over games of ping pong, in machine records—precursor to computers for billing, collections, and inventory control. Then came the Marines. Instead of being sent to Korea, Bob was assigned to Quantico, Va., to work on early computer systems. After the Marines, he worked in the D.C. area creating computer-based systems before returning to Atlanta.
“I was the computer guy, back in the day,” he said.
Bob traces his advocacy work to his days at the Georgia Conservancy, first as a member, and later as its forestry committee chair. Eventually, he headed up the nonprofit. In 1977, at the request of President Jimmy Carter’s administration, Bob led a team evaluating forested areas in North Georgia and Western North Carolina for possible congressional designation under the Wilderness Act.
“We walked those mountains over and over,” he said, “and we came up with the best justification for designating those lands as wilderness.”
The work was controversial. Many locals and businesses fiercely opposed the wilderness designation, but ultimately, the report proved pivotal in the decision to protect the lands.
In 1984, working with Georgia’s congressional delegation and conservation groups, Bob led the Georgia Conservancy’s efforts to expand the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area (CRNRA). “He authored amendments that increased the boundary acreage on either side of the river and that gave the National Park Service the authority to exchange one piece of land for another,” said Rich Sussman, a former Park Service employee. “He saved our bacon when Reagan administration officials balked at legislative changes to better protect the CRNRA.”
Some people call him a visionary, but Bob said he often was“at the right place at the right time, with just enough sense to say yes.” He also knew “how to find the right people for the job.” For example, when controversy erupted about building a hazardous waste incinerator in Georgia, Governor Zell Miller tapped Bob to lead a project to determine whether the incinerator actually was needed. The answer was “No.”
From that investigation, Bob helped create the Pollution Prevention Division in the state’s Department of Natural Resources. He assembled a team of “mostly young and college-educated people” whose work involved helping the industry develop sustainable business practices to reduce waste at the source. Many of the people involved in that early effort still work in conservation in Georgia and across the country, he said.
Then in the 1990s came another war, this time over water rights to the two major river basins providing water to Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. The so-called Water Wars went on for 30 years. Bob spent a dozen contentious years representing Georgia in negotiations to create water-allocation compacts with Florida and Alabama.
“Our team was dedicated to the technical and legal work necessary so that we were on a firm foundation,” he said.
Ultimately, those compacts weren’t implemented. But in 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Georgia, rejecting Florida’s claims that Georgia should return to 1992 levels of water usage. Florida declined to challenge the Court’s findings.
A witness to many challenges over a lifetime of advocacy, Bob looks to the future. Spend time with him and you realize how readily he sizes up people, listens intently, negotiates fairly, and discovers who can get things done. These days, he shares his passion for protecting and restoring the South Fork of Peachtree Creek and its banks with South Fork’s Board and its many partners and supporters. Together, they are laying a ribbon of green through urban Atlanta that ultimately will extend from Buckhead to Emory and onto its headwaters in Tucker.
That work takes diplomacy, political savvy, technical and legal expertise,
physical labor, fundraising, and a desire to connect people to the natural world.
Bob mentions how much he loves DeKalb County’s Zonolite Park which runs along the Creek. Once an asbestos-laced brownfield, it’s now a jewel of a park.
“I helped make that happen,” Bob said. “People react to what they see. They need access to the land and creek to experience its beauty, and then they learn to love it. It’s got to be promising enough that it becomes a part of their lives so that they’re willing to take responsibility for protecting it. The Friends group at Zonolite is doing a magnificent job at that.”
It’s 2023, and as Bob sits in his sunlit living room, his gaze is as calm and steady as that of the young marine. Decades later, he, too, has done a magnificent job.
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I, along with so many others, are proud to be neighbors and friends of Bob Kerr. His life and work are a gift to us and to the environment–in Atlanta, Georgia, and beyond. Thank you, Bob Kerr!
Congratulations, Bob, on reaching this milestone in such fine fettle and with so many Atlanta-enhancing achievements to be celebrated for! Thank you for making our city more livable and healthier and more enjoyable and environmentally protected. I loved seeing the happy photos of you and especially the one of Linda and you. Blessings as you two go forward even further, arm in arm. Fondly, Dorothy Beasley
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